In Memoriam – Brian Smelley
I wasn’t going to go to the funeral.
It was a very busy morning at work. Phone shipments were coming in left and right. New POP to hang on the walls. And I only had two of my employees working with me. It was raining, which meant the locals would be washed down off the hills to come and upgrade their phones, and it was cold. An overcast, ugly, fall Alabama day. And I just didn’t have time. “Too much to do,” I kept telling myself over and over. But the Spirit of the Lord has a funny way of working its way into a hardened heart sometimes. So at just before 10 AM I blurted out to my coworker Nancy that I was going to be leaving in less than an hour for a funeral. She gave me a quizzical look, as if to say, “Stan, you usually don’t take your lunch until at least 2:30. And why didn’t you mention this earlier on a busy day like this?!” – I knew if I blurted it out though she would make me go. Nancy has that motherly-sense about her.
So at 10:30 I walked out the door of my store and ducked my head against the cold wind and rain. “Stupid Stan,” I mumbled to myself. I have this magical ability to never have a coat with me when I need it. I stopped at one of the local banks to drop off our store’s morning deposit, then drove to Collins-Burke Funeral Home, a total of a four minute drive (in heavy traffic) from my work. As I drove up the parking lot was packed. I had to park far away, which meant a longer walk in my rolled up shirt-sleeves and tie. “Could all these people really be here for Brian?”
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I can’t remember the first time I met Brian Smelley. I am sure that it was on a Sunday morning as I walked into our local church foyer. Brian was always there. And always early. At somewhere just shy of 500 lbs. he stuck out in a crowd and was hard to miss. I’m sure I had the same reaction the first time I met Brian Smelley, but over the years as I got to know him, I would often sit back and watch people walk into our foyer as newcomers and shake his hand. The looks on many people’s faces said it all. Yet Brian, in his tattered blue jeans, messy white shirt, his oversized thick-lens glasses, and smile of missing teeth reached out to one and all with that big grin on his face and would almost shout, “Welcome to church! Goodmorning!”
As a teenager I remember seeing him all around our small community in Walker County. Brian was always walking. He didn’t have a car, but that never seemed to stop him from being everywhere and anywhere smiling and talking to folks. Before my mission I worked in the local mall in an upscale men’s clothing store, and Brian would stop in often to shoot the breeze and just let me know he was thinking about me. He called me a friend. And often a handshake wouldn’t suffice for a man who loved others and sometimes insisted on a hug from his “brother”. I remember my boss, a good man but businessman through and through, one time looking me in the face and saying, “He can’t be in here. He smells.” And although my boss’s statement may have been true, I remember looking him in the eye and telling him Brian was a good person and I wasn’t about to stop him from coming in the store. So I didn’t, and Brian kept coming.
When I left to serve for two years in the Washington Seattle Mission I did so as the only actively participating member of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in my family. And Brian knew that. So when I was in the MTC and his first letter arrived I was somewhat shocked. I had gone most of my MTC experience without a single piece of mail (a laughable situation among the many Utah elders in my branch), but then out of the blue came a simple white envelope with scribbled writing on it. “Brian Smelley” was written in pencil on the corner. It was the first of the countless single-page two or three sentenced letters I would get from Brian.
“Dear Elder Stanley” one of them had started. Another with “My Friend”. And then an introductory sentence like I was reading from an epistle from the New Testament, “Greetings by way of grace which we have through our Savior Jesus Christ”. And they always ended just like the Apostle Paul had written the letter himself, “Your faithful Brother in Christ, Brian Smelley”. Sometimes they would come once a week. On a couple of occasions they came two or three times a week. But he would never go more than a month without letting me know how the Jasper Ward was doing. “Stake Conference was great.” “The missionaries had a baptism.” “We talked about you in Priesthood today.” “I’ve been called as Elder’s Quorum Secretary.” “I’m trying to do a good job.” “We’re praying for you.” “I miss you.” “I look forward to your return.” – It was a commonly known fact in my mission that there wasn’t some girl waiting on me “back home”, but I did have Brother Smelley writing me to keep my spirits up. At Zone Conferences a former companion or member of my district would often say, “Hey! How is Brother Smelley doing?” And I could easily keep them updated.
In July of 2005 when I returned to the Jasper Ward I found good ol’ Brian still greeting folks at the door. I couldn’t help but wrap my arms around him that first Sunday home. He’d became a closer friend when I was 2,000 miles away than when I had lived just across town. In our Priesthood meetings he was always there sitting in the back of the gym with his clipboard, marking the roster, or ruffling through some sort of notes he was taking. I was called to be our Ward Clerk (for a second time) a month after returning home, and as quarterly reports were always coming due from each of the Church’s auxiliaries, Brian was always the first to have his numbers to me. Often he would sit with me on Sunday afternoons as I updated our long-ignored membership records, and once I remember him chiding the Relief Society secretary to be “more faithful” in keeping up with her attendance records (which didn’t sit well with this dear older sister).
Wednesdays became my “Temple Day” as I settled back into civilian life after my mission. Brian soon heard of my weekly temple excursions and asked if he could tag along. I gladly accepted. And so every Wednesday I would go and pick up Brian from his small trailer in Cordova, Alabama, and we would make our way to the Birmingham Temple. Our hour long drives to and from the temple taught me so much about this great and simple man. He’d never been married. He’d fallen for a couple of girls, but no female had ever shown him any interest. He’d been bullied a lot, as a child and as an adult. Life wasn’t easy. But talking about his personal life wasn’t Brian’s way of conversating. After just a brief discussion of anything in his life he would quickly revert the discussion back to my life, my new career as an insurance agent,the weather, or anything at all. But mostly he wanted to talk about the Gospel.
Brian loved to talk about the Gospel of Jesus Christ! And he especially loved talking about the Temple. Family History work was his passion. “You really need to start working on your family history Stan!” he would lecture me over and over on our car rides. I’d laugh and say, “I’m young! I’ll do it when I’m old Brian.” But that never sat well with him, and it was during those few discussions that he would cut his eyes at me and mumble about how I didn’t understand how important it was. I couldn’t help but laugh at the time that the one thing in the world that seemed to make Brian Smelley upset was that I wasn’t doing my family history and genealogy work.
I treasured our Wednesday trips to the temple. And they continued for a year and a half until my schedule started to change.
While I had been in Seattle though Brian had made a new friend. A mid-twenty year old man had joined our church after leaving his former congregation. – I would learn only later that the man had been all but kicked out of the congregation for a variety of reasons. – This man was different though. And to say that there was a great feeling of uneasiness anytime I was around him would be an understatement. I didn’t trust the guy. Every time I looked into his face Elder Neil L. Andersen’s words “Beware of the evil behind the smiling eyes,” came to mind. Yet he was there at church every Sunday with Brian. The two became nearly inseparable. Often on our Wednesday trips Brian would tell me of some inappropriate activity he had engaged in with this man and he would say, “I know I should have done that Stan.” The man was a bad influence on Brian, yet he appeared to most to be an active, faithful, Latter-day Saint who was just trying to convert from his “former ways”.
A lot happened over the year and a half while Brian and I were Temple Buddies. The other man confronted me once to tell me that he was in love with the young lady I was dating. I laughed it off and told him to attend some YSA activities and find himself a good Mormon gal. He was called as my assistant ward clerk. I was called as his home teacher. I felt the best thing to do was to just fellowship this guy and help him in any way I could. There was an uneasy friction between us as I continued to date “his love”, and I saw him nearly continually in our functions in and out of church. Finally one Sunday he stopped me in the hallway at church to tell me that one day he was going to kill me, chop me into little pieces, and scatter me throughout the woods. He laughed, patted me on the back, and said, “Just kidding.” But the look in his eyes said something much more. – The next Sunday as we were preparing to bless the sacrament together he patted me on the leg and pointed down at his own pair of slacks. I looked and saw a large bulge on one of his legs. “What’s that?” I whispered casually, aware that our bishop was making the weekly announcements. He then carefully moved to show me the handle of a pistol he was carrying in his pocket. He then smiled a big grin and shoved it back into his slacks so no one else would see.
It was the first time I was actually scared of the guy.
So much seemed to happen at that point in such a condensed period of time that in truth, it would be impossible to chronicle it all here. Suffice it to say that within a few weeks of my scare at the sacrament table myself, my ward leaders, and even my family were fully creeped out by the interactions we were all having with this gentleman.
The bombshell came late one Saturday night as I was getting ready for church. It was after 11PM and I had just finished ironing my clothes for meetings the next morning. When my cell phone began to ring and I saw that it was my bishop I picked up phone instantly, worried that something had happened to someone in our congregation. I never received church phone calls this late at night.
“Brother Way?” my bishop started slowly.
“Hey Bishop. What’s going on?” I answered, anxious for the news I was surely about to receive. No good news comes late at night.
“Well,” then there was a long pause, and I could tell my good priesthood leader was searching for appropriate words. My heart sunk. What could be going on? “Well,” he started again, “I just got off the phone with Brian Smelley.”
There was a pause.
“Okay,” I said. It had been a statement with an inflection at the end almost like it was a question. My curiosity was at fever pitch at this point. “What’s going on Bishop?”
“Brian called me just a little while ago to inform me that there have been plans made to murder you in the clerk’s office after church tomorrow.”
The words hung heavy on the phone line and suddenly the world was deathly silent. This statement held no inflection at the end. It was delivered with deep sincerity. Yet, in my naive youthful mind all I could come back with was a chuckle at the absurdity of the idea.
“Excuse me?” I asked. Perhaps I had misheard. Surely I had misheard.
My good bishop then repeated the same sentence to me, this time adding additional details and delivering the entire story. As I sat in my bedroom on my cell phone it was like I was listening the storyline to a Tom Clancy novel.
At some point earlier in the week our acquaintance with the smiling eyes had approached Brian and proposed the idea of killing me. Brian had laughed it off at first thinking it was some fantastical fantasy from a troubled individual. – Brian was simple, but he wasn’t dumb. – But the other gentleman had pursued the thought so much by himself that he only needed Brian to play a part in the plan he had concocted. No motive was given to Brian, but as his friend continued to lay out his plan in every succinct detail, Brian knew that it was no longer just a fantasy, and Brian got scared.
The details of this man’s plan to kill me, too morbid and detailed to fully recount, were chilling. But he had planned it out from beginning to end. And knowing my schedule of spending Sunday afternoons alone at the church building updating church records was perfectly what he needed. Well, that, and Brian of course. Brain would be the one to distract me as he literally stabbed me in the back.
As my bishop finished telling me of the detailed plans to murder me in less than 24 hours I sat shocked on the phone. My mouth hung open, aghast at the idea, and my mind was racing at a million miles per hour. And deep down in the pit of my stomach was a sick feeling, and I knew that what my bishop was telling me was true.
“So what do you want to do Brother Way?” my bishop asked again. I think he’d already asked me the question once, but I was just too shocked to answer.
“I’m sorry?” I stalled.
“What do you think we should do? I’ve already contacted the stake president and he is aware of the situation, and we’re here to fully support you in whatever your decision is,” the bishop said.
My decision? What should we do? I had no idea. It was all a tad overwhelming
“What about Brian?” I asked. “Why did he wait until tonight to tell you?” My brain was starting to function again after the shock.
“He was scared,” said my bishop. And my heart skipped a beat at that moment as I contemplated my good friend Brian having had to reel in his mind over this gory plan all week. Brian, my simple minded temple buddy, had got thrown into the middle of a twisted and lurid situation. It made me sick.
I made a decision that night that my priesthood leaders, friends, and family were all surprised over once they learned the fullness of the circumstances. But I told the bishop we should not worry about it. We shouldn’t call the police. I wasn’t going to have a restraining order filed. And I wasn’t going to make it a big deal. “Satan thrives on drama and distress,” I told my bishop. And I told him to go to bed and get a good night’s rest.
To this day I still remember every single movement I made the next day at church. The shock on the faces of my friends and brethren in the bishopric meeting as they heard of the situation. The phone call with the stake president. Brian, nervously standing in the hallway waiting to see me before sacrament meeting. It’s all etched eternally and with great detail into my mind. Nothing is more remembered than the guidance of the Spirit though as I drove up the street from the church to this conniving brother’s home, got out of my car, and knocked on his door.
There, alone on a shaded doorstep, and having no idea why God had guided me to deal with the situation in such manner, I confronted him. He opened the door cautiously, then smiled broadly to see me standing there, practically delivered to him. There was even a rifle sitting right beside the door. I knew it would be there though from my previous home teaching visits. I knew the lion’s den I had been guided to.
The words of that conversation are words I consider sacred. God told me what to say as I peered deeply into this man’s eyes. And though I was showing great courage on the outside, the black emptiness I saw beyond his pupils scared me in ways I will never be able to put into words. The entire exchange took less than three minutes, ending with me bearing testimony that I knew what he had planned and that God knew it also. Somewhere in the darkness of his eyes I saw the tiniest glint of fear as I discerned his thoughts. – And it was over. I got in my car and drove away.
In the months and years that passed Brian became more infrequent at church, as did his friend. Despite my best efforts to always be there for Brian, I couldn’t be there was much as this other gentleman, and it tore at my heart strings to see someone so impressionable led down paths of darkness. Brian was unhappy, but at least he had a friend who was continually there for him. Or so he thought.
In the spring of 2010 Brian and this other man were charged with the murder, desecration, and disposal of a local man’s body. Brian’s friend had shot the man in the back, Brian had witnessed it, and was then forced at gunpoint to assist in the cover up of the crime (which included chopping the man up into many pieces and disposing of him throughout the woods and local area). – I was speechless.
Brian, always simple and honest, confessed fully in taking part in the cover up. He was afraid for his own life. He was afraid his “friend” would kill him too. The friend, it turns out, said Brian played an integral part in the whole ordeal. The other man’s plea deal spared him the death penalty, but it also guaranteed a life in prison for Brian.
My friend had been deceived by the devil himself…
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As I ran through the cold rain pelting against my thin shirt I opened the door to the mortuary to find a dear friend from church. Then dozens of dear friends. I saw people from the community I knew, many of whom I never even knew had known Brian. And I saw countless people I didn’t know. The chapel at the mortuary held a throng of people to wish Brian, a wrongly convicted murderer, goodbye.
He had died just eight days ago at Kilby Correctional Facility near Montgomery. That our friend Brian, so simple minded and so physically vulnerable, had made it so long in prison was shock to many of us. He died of “health complications”. – I think it was from a broken heart.
There were two eulogies, one from a zealous born again preacher and one from an elderly sister from our (now) branch. The latter didn’t leave a dry eye in the room, and as she spoke of Brian’s pure heart, his love for life, for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and of his impressionable mind, it was impressed upon us all by God’s loving presence where Brian was now.
As the sister from our branch finished speaking and we all joined in singing Amazing Grace, the words from another hymn came to mind,
Each life that touches ours for good
Reflects thine own great mercy, Lord…
When such a friend from us departs,
We hold forever in our hearts
A sweet and hallowed memory,
Bringing us nearer, Lord, to thee.”
I hadn’t planned on going to the funeral. But I’m glad I did. And how could I have not gone?…
After all, I probably owe Brian my life. To him I am truly eternally indebted.
And I look forward to the day when I shall seem him again, perhaps at the entrance to some celestial sphere, standing with that big smile on his face and with outstretched arms. “Greetings in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ!” I can almost hear him echoing as I approach…
I look forward to that day when I get to reunite with my friend.